Iyengar Yoga Association of Northern California: A History of Firsts

The history of Iyengar Yoga in Northern California began in 1973 with one of Guruji’s first trips to America. A yogini named Rama Jyoti Vernon was at the YMCA in Ann Arbor, MI where BKS Iyengar taught. She flew home to California completely changed by the experience, determined to share her learning with others.

The next year, Guruji made his first trip to Northern California. Iyengar Yoga was still relatively unknown. He taught to a small group of students in Oakland; of 60 available places in the small hall, only 56 were taken.

But momentum had begun to build. Together with Mary Dunn, Felicity Hall (now Felicity Green), Judith Lasater, Glen Moyer, and others, Rama created a community of students interested in studying Iyengar Yoga. This group began the Institute for Yoga Teacher Education (IYTE), which operated under the auspices of the California Yoga Teachers’ Association. That comprehensive program, the first Iyengar Yoga teacher training program in the U.S., has been a beacon of light and learning for people all over the world.

In March 1976 Ramanand Patel, who had met Guruji in 1968, moved to California and joined this group. He was immediately welcomed as a teacher of teachers and helped fine tune the teacher training program by holding weekend workshops and classes at his South Bay home where the staff of the teaching program regularly met.

In 1976, the first Iyengar Yoga association in the U.S was established. Called the Light on Yoga Association, its early leaders included Mary Dunn, Keshava Kronish (its first president), Larry Hatlett, Melinda Perlee, and other aforementioned founding members. The Association was established primarily to promote yoga education in accordance with the techniques “evolved and developed” by B.K S. Iyengar.

The articles of incorporation for the Light on Yoga Association listed 14 purposes, including reviving interest in the ethical and spiritual concepts of Indian philosophy, fostering and developing correct meditative practice, producing films for educational purposes, and training teachers. This association was the seed that eventually became IYNAUS.

This Association brought Guruji back to the Bay Area the same year, 1976. By this time, interest in Iyengar Yoga had grown considerably. Many people vied for a space in the picturesque Brazil Room at Tilden Park, located just above the campus of the University of California at Berkeley.

That particular trip was seminal, forging a direct connection between San Francisco and Pune that continues to this day. Practitioners began to travel regularly to Pune, and Guruji has visited the Bay Area on every U.S. tour since then. The teacher training program, intensives, and weekend workshops offered by the San Francisco Institute provided a setting in which what was learned from the Iyengar family could be disseminated more widely to students and aspiring teachers.

In 1978, the Institute for Yoga Teacher Education was sold to the Light on Yoga Association for $1,000, a huge sum it seemed to the yoga teachers who volunteered to raise the money. However, the funds were quickly secured by community support. With this new ownership and its new name (Guruji changed the name of the Light on Yoga Association to its present name, the Iyengar Yoga Association of Northern California), IYANC expanded its reach, scheduling classes for beginners and other programs for the general public.

Over the years, the Institute had several homes in different parts of San Francisco. The teacher training at the Institute quickly became known as the Harvard of such programs. Packed weekend workshops and summer intensives offered teachers and practitioners opportunities to share ideas and learn from one another. These were incredibly important opportunities, as there were few Iyengar teachers in the US. They were a “shot in the arm” that helped many people go back to their own communities to teach, open studios, and conduct workshops.

Many of the founding members of the Iyengar Yoga community in the Bay Area supported Iyengar Yoga as leaders of the California Yoga Teachers Association. This association maintained yoga connections and communication by offering referral services for teachers and publishing a small mimeographed magazine called Yoga Journal.

In its early years, Yoga Journal inspired readers to practice Iyengar Yoga specifically, though the journal itself struggled to make money to meet its printing costs. An often-told story has it that when Guruji came to San Francisco in 1984 for the first International Iyengar Yoga Convention ever held—and the first yoga convention in the U.S.—Yoga Journal was in debt. Judith Lasater was called to the stage to make a last-minute plea to save the magazine. She reminded conference attendees that they had learned about the conference in the publication. If they wanted it to remain in print, she said, they should put money into the hat that was being passed around. The attendees responded positively, providing the money needed. Yoga Journal has grown to be the yoga community’s largest-circulation publication, now catering to a more general yoga audience.

This 1984 San Francisco convention proved to be another seminal event for Iyengar Yoga. Mr. Iyengar and teachers from around the world were welcomed by 750 enthusiastic attendees. Participants were thrilled, they said, to sit in Davies Symphony Hall not to hear the usual sounds of the orchestra, but to watch the rhythmic movements of yoga.

That convention, led by Manouso Manos, served as a model and inspiration for the American Iyengar Conventions that have followed. Since that convention, Guruji has made more trips to Northern California, including a 1995 appearance at Davies Symphony Hall for his Light on Life tour.

Yoga has changed with the years. Once, a majority of yoga teachers in the Bay Area were Iyengar Yoga teachers, and the Institute was the only area yoga center. Today, it seems, yoga studios occupy nearly every street corner in Northern California. Many are owned and operated by Iyengar Yoga teachers. Senior and Jr Int teachers from our region fan out to rural and urban areas across the US and the world, to teach weekend workshops that bring Iyengar yoga to those who are interest. This growth of interest in yoga is incredibly satisfying.

The Iyengar Institute of San Francisco continues as a beacon of light, directly transmitting the teachings of B.K.S. Iyengar. Since 1983 the Institute has occupied its present location at 27th Avenue and Taraval Street in the outer Sunset District, quite near the ocean. San Francisco is a city known for its culture and scenic beauty, and visitors to the Institute taste that flavor. Newcomers soon become used to the sounds of the San Francisco trolley as it rumbles by while they are in Savasana.

Today, the association’s mission remains to promote Iyengar Yoga. The Institute in San Francisco is an asset of the association and is operated by it. The centerpiece of IYISF’s programming is still the Advanced Studies / Teacher Training program. Additionally, the Institute—with two studios in the building—offers public classes, workshops, and retreats. These programs give seasoned local teachers and Senior Teachers from around the world an opportunity to share Iyengar Yoga with others. The Light on Yoga bookstore is at the Institute and can also be accessed online at here.

Clearly, the history of yoga in America has its roots in Iyengar Yoga in Northern California. The early and current members of our community continue to serve as an inspiration to practitioners everywhere.

As the needs of the community change, the activities of the Institute and the association continue to evolve. Today the Institute is investing in its relationships across the community and creating a more comprehensive regional presence throughout Northern California, Nevada, and Hawaii. It continues to offer workshops including those taught by members of the Iyengar family. Mr. Iyengar’s daughter, Sunita Parthasarthy, was the most recent to teach at the Institute in May 2012. The Institute and the Association remain committed to supporting Iyengar Yoga teachers and practitioners across the region.